A Capital Adventure

How circumstances sabotaged another fantasy for me, this time a really big one

Yesterday at 5 P.M. I set the alarm clock for 6 P.M. and got into bed. I needed at least an hour's rest. I'm not quite sure what happened, but when I awoke about 15 minutes ago I discovered that it was 1 A.M. and that I had slept eight hours straight. I brushed my teeth, washed my face and rushed in a panic to the hotel reception desk.

Illustrations by Amos Biderman

"No, sir," the polite clerk behind the counter told me, "we do not have coffee at this time of the day." Nor did they serve food of any kind and, as in the room, smoking is prohibited throughout the entire hotel.

"However," the clerk said with a prolonged smile, "DC Cafe, which is right around the corner, is open. They have coffee and good falafel and you can smoke in their courtyard."

DC Cafe, the only place in the area that's actually open, serves Middle Eastern food, or at least that's what I can glean from the menu - which features kebab, moussaka, lamb and kubeh. I didn't want lamb at this hour, so I decided to start with tea and then figure out what to eat afterward.

So here I am at 2 A.M. with my laptop in Washington, D.C., trying to write my column before the magazine goes to print, because according to Israel time, the time zone and the newspaper, my deadline is pretty tight.

It's pleasant here in the DC Cafe courtyard, and pretty quiet. Occasionally a car stops and a few young people looking for their Mediterranean munchies get out. Finally a moment of tranquillity after 24 insane hours of flights and security checks until I reached my destination. It all happened so fast - from the moment the editor of the magazine called and suggested I cover the Bibi-Obama meeting at the White House.

"No," I said at first. "I can't." The flight hadn't been planned and I'm afraid to fly, especially on long flights. And anyway, what do I want with Bibi and Obama, what do I understand about any of it?

"What?" my wife scolded me when she learned about my initial rejection of the offer. "The White House?! You said no to the White House? You will get to meet Obama, for God's sake."

"Listen, it's not like I'm going to have a beer with Barack Hussein and Michelle."

My wife refused to believe I would pass up such an opportunity. I also had the feeling that I might be making an unfortunate mistake that would hamper my progress as a serious journalist - an objective I've always striven toward. A quarter of an hour later, under pressure of the people, I called the editor back and said I would take the assignment. From that moment a mad race began. Somehow the paper found me a plane ticket to New York, from New York I would fly to Washington, and after one night - tonight, when I am wide awake - I would attend the coveted meeting at the White House.

"What do you mean, you don't have a suit?" the newspaper production chief asked me, in shock. "Natasha, our correspondent in the United States, explicitly said that you cannot enter the White House without a suit and tie."

"Where am I going to get a suit now?" I asked him. "My only suit is an olive green thing with sparkles on it - my wife calls it the 'disco suit.'"

"They will never let you into the White House wearing a costume like that, what's with you? Besides, are you sure you can even get into the pants?"

With my suitcase in the trunk of the car I sped to a Jerusalem mall, went into a Polgat store and shouted as I walked in, "I am flying in one hour to meet Obama in the White House and I need a suit."

Two industrious salespeople abandoned their customers to assist me, obviously thinking I was a security guard for the prime minister. Within a second I pointed to a black suit - "Not shiny," I emphasized - a white shirt, a black tie with subdued diagonal brown and gray stripes and leather shoes that I immediately knew would wreak havoc on my heels.

"You need cuffs," the salesman said when I tried on the suit. "It will take half an hour."

"There's no time," I announced self-importantly. "Do you have any masking tape?"

The cashier tried to swipe the charge into two payments, but there was no authorization for the card. Then we tried four payments but the machine continued making its refusals. I paid with the cash I had in my pocket and asked them to divide the remainder into six payments on the card, the maximum without interest that the store offers. That worked.

There's a reason I'm elaborating on the episode in the store: It's just one example from a chain of events that hinted nothing on this unplanned dream trip that had befallen me in the middle of my life was going to go smoothly. At airport security, for example, after a long period in which I was certain the security people had been instructed to be polite to me because of the frequency of my appearances there, they decided to depart from custom and treat me to the entire ritual reserved for the immediate suspect: the opening of the suitcase, the body search and, on the upper floor, the referral to the personnel in the special compound for dangerous travelers.

Once on board the plane, we were told we would be making a stop in Boston to change pilots. "Half an hour," the crew said, "and you won't have to exit the plane." That half hour turned into a grueling hour and a half, and on top of the flight's 12 nerve-wracking hours it was just a nightmare. From Boston we finally flew to New York, where I told the immigration officer that I was there to write an article. What an idiot I was.

"Why don't you have a reporter's visa?" he asked. I had no idea what he was talking about, ignorance which landed me opposite an expressionless clerk in some office of the U.S. administration for quite a long time. Naturally I missed the connection to Washington and had to wait for the next one. By the time I arrived at the hotel in the American capital I was wiped out. I set the clock for 6 P.M. and now here I am.

The truth is that it's alright, it's a good thing I slept eight hours instead of one. And now I am very excited, because in another few hours I will be in the White House, dear God! And if you want to know the truth, the suit is really gorgeous, or at least it looked that way on the model in the huge photo hanging in Polgat. "Like that," I'd told the saleswoman, pointing. "That's it."

I thought it time I went inside to order something to eat from the DC Cafe.

"Where are you from?" the guy at the counter asked.

"From Israel," I smiled and ordered a falafel. Why is he making a face? I thought the Americans are pro-Israeli, otherwise I would have said Palestine.

He started to put the falafel together. The Arabic music playing on the radio in the background was interrupted by a news bulletin. And here it comes, 3 A.M., Washington, D.C.: "The Israeli occupation army attacked the flotilla, opened fire, killed, wounded."

The man crushed the falafel violently. "With spices?" he asked contemptuously, as the radio announced that the prime minister would not be visiting Washington after all.